The Scenario in a Nutshell: Let the players practice tactics or find out how tough their characters are by having them fight creatures or NPCs. Note that this scenario works best for players who can enjoy a game that’s mostly combat.
Making It Work: How this works depends on what variation of the scenario you decide to run, as there are several:
- For fun and practice. You can run an arena night as a kind of “practice” session. This kind of practice is sometimes useful, particularly when players are trying to learn a new game system (or a new character class), or when a new DM wants more practice at managing a combat without having to juggle a plot, too. With the arena scenario, you can concentrate on just the combat rules for a while, and once you have those down, you’ll find it’s then easier to deal with other types of DMing challenges. Even for gaming veterans, though, the arena scenario has its kicks. Though our group comprises veteran saga-type gamers heavy into literature (several of us are college English faculty), we enjoy a good mindless bout every once in a while, and have spent several evenings this way over the years. Sometimes it’s fun to see which PC in a 3rd-level party can last the longest against a beholder. Let the dice fall where they may and see who dies. Then dust off the characters and have them fight something else. Let them fight each other, PvP (Player vs Player) style if they’re up for it. You can also have players reinvent their characters after each battle, in an attempt to optimize them. As for materials, maps aren’t usually necessary, but if you’d like a battle mat of an arena, DM David has one on his site.
- As a Temporary or Long-Term Gladiator Campaign: Maybe the party was captured. Maybe they’re just competitive. But the scenario might be that the PCs really are fighting it out in an arena, not for practice but for real. In such a case, you can provide a string of encounters and let the bodies fall where they may. There is a thrill to be earned, however, if they face a single tough opponent multiple times, which is tough to do if characters can die. That adversary can become a hated or feared rival, and scenes of boasts or wagering of bets can raise the stakes of each conflict. To make this sort of tension possible, you need a way to make combat brutal but nonlethal. Here are several options for doing so:
- Gladiator Points. This is a simple “subdual” combat system. Each character has a pool of “gladiator points” equal to their hit points. When they fight in the arena, they do damage to gladiator points instead of to hit points. If someone falls to zero gladiator points, a referee flags them as out of combat and they limp out of the arena to nurse their wounds.
- Lathas Torcs. The PCs are prisoners on a strange plane where every living being deals only temporary damage with an attack. At a victim’s first short rest, all wounds seem to quickly heal. However, the most powerful people in the realm, including those who own the PCs, wear devices called Lathas Torcs, magical devices that imbue wearers with the power to deliver lethal wounds normally on this plane. Even the guards who watch the party don’t wear the torcs. If the party tries to escape, the guards will bludgeon them to death and then toss them back into their cells to recover. One side effect of this property, of course, is that gladiator games can be truly brutal and even unfair, with all of the victims fully recovered for further abuse the next day.
Variations on the Theme: Arenas don’t always have to look Roman–or even like arenas. Our group has had memorable showdowns in dueling circles atop great rocks overlooking the ocean.
You could have a scenario in which those seeking audience with someone powerful or useful (like an oracle) might have to prove their worthiness through combat before the gates or doors of the site, dueling with others who are there to avail themselves of the same resource. If the site in question is on an Outer Plane, perhaps the PCs are arriving Astrally, so that each defeat boots them back to their home plane instead of killing them.
As another alternative, the space between two armies at war can become a kind of situational arena during lulls in unit warfare, a space where warriors from one side and those of another can test their mettle. Playwright Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, once killed an enemy soldier in single combat on a battlefield between two armies. The other soldier had been yelling taunts all night, prompting Jonson to yell back a challenge. We see this moment echoed in other stories: Achilles vs Hector in The Iliad; the duel between Ammar and Rodrigo in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan.
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